THE ABSOLUTE BOOK by Elizabeth Knox (BOOK REVIEW)
“And it’s not just Murdoch and immigrants and implied promises about what might be done to save the NHS by the very people dismantling it. It’s not just memories of busy shipyards and Grandad’s self-respect. No, it’s an almost mythical yearning, as though, if only we can create the right conditions, a stranger might come out of the mist, thrust a sword into a stone and say, “Whosoever draws forth this blade…”
And now here he was, having returned from another world, with a much better understanding of the depth of his ignorance concerning what might be yearned for, and not be mythical.”
Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book came out in New Zealand last year, and I have been desperate to read it ever since a Slate article talking about the book as a transformative work of modern fantasy went viral. Now, thanks to Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin, The Absolute Book has made it over to the UK. I am happy to say that Elizabeth Knox’s wonderous novel is everything I had hoped it would be and more. The Absolute Book is lyrical, literary and unashamedly magical. People are already comparing it to such pivotal, instant classics of the Fantasy genre as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000) or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004). Personally I would go one further and liken it to John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) or Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984), indelible works of Fantasy that transformed both the genre and myself as a reader. As a reviewer I am aware that these comparisons are of limited use at best, but the urge to make them is strong, because The Absolute Book is a novel that will remind you of why you love Fantasy in the first place, and what makes the genre such a powerful medium for exploring human emotion. It is at once both a triumphant celebration of escape, and a probing and profound meditation on grief.
The Absolute Book tells the story of Taryn Cornick, who struggles to understand her place in the world after her sister is murdered by a stranger. Taryn’s desire for revenge sets a series of events in motion that will lead to demonic possession, the sidhe and most importantly, Shift, a half-sidhe man who can change shape and is cursed to be immortal but lose his memory every two hundred years. Taryn, Shift, and Jacob Berger, a detective who suspects that Taryn may be involved in her sister’s murderer’s mysterious death, must team up to track down the Firestarter, an ancient scroll box containing a secret text of unknowable power last seen in Taryn’s grandfather’s library. The fate of both humanity and the sidhe depends on them finding it before the demons do.
Another aspect of The Absolute Book I loved was its depiction of the sidhe. Knox engages with the mythology of fairies, the sidhe, the tylwyth teg in a way that captures their alienness, their otherworldliness, without shying away from their sinister side. A large element of The Absolute Book is the Tithe that Fairyland pays to Hell, a payment of human souls to balance the sidhe’s taking of a portion of Hell to create their homeland. This particularly sinister element of fairy mythology runs through classic Child Ballads like Tam Lin, and similarly shapes the way the sidhe interact with humans throughout The Absolute Book. Knox’s fairies are beautiful, charming, and operate on a different morality to humans that can make them seem callous and cruel. Like classic works of fairy literature from the original folk tales and ballads through to foundational works of Fantasy like Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Kingdoms Of Elfin (1977) or Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire & Hemlock (1984), The Absolute Book captures both the seductive and the horrifying nature of fairies, and thus gets what makes them so compelling.
Elizabeth Knox expertly weaves a tale that ranges across rural England and Wales, Auckland, the Sidhe and purgatory, incorporating Irish and Welsh mythology about fairies, talking ravens, Norse gods and demons, somehow without crossing over into indulgence or messiness. At over 600 pages, The Absolute Book is epic in scope but never outstays its welcome. This is because of Knox’s razor-sharp focus. She is a writer who knows exactly what her story needs from each disparate strand of folklore and mythology she uses, and weaves it together into a compelling, original whole. It is also because of her incredible character work. All of Knox’s characters are well drawn and fully realised. Taryn is a heroine whose strength is her knowledge and understanding, a scholarly hero fit for a book about libraries and tracking down missing books. Yet she is also a deeply sympathetic and compelling portrait of a woman struggling to come to terms with grief over her sister’s untimely death. Similarly, Jacob has gone into the police force looking for both excitement and a larger meaning and purpose to his life, and coming face to face with mythological beings and travelling between dimensions to Fairyland force him to confront what he has built his understanding of the world on. Knox is not afraid to put her characters through the mill, yet all of this is so that they emerge on the other side with a greater understanding of themselves and each other.
The Absolute Book’s approach to the Fantastic is one I am particularly fond of, in which the Fantastic encroaches on our own recognisable reality. It is this that put me in mind of Crowley’s Little, Big, and in some ways The Absolute Book can be read as a response to Crowley’s masterpiece. However while Little, Big takes place against a backdrop of fairy incursion into our world enabled by a populist politician, The Absolute Book critiques the mythologisation of a treasured past that forms much of the framing of populist rhetoric whilst celebrating escapism itself as a necessary part of human existence. Knox argues that the mythological is not there to prop up nationalism or human exceptionalism, it is there to help us gaze at the world with the openness and wonder that allows us to love, to imagine, to grow as people. By the end of The Absolute Book we may well welcome the Fantastical incursion as one that offers a less destructive way to exist with ourselves and the world around us.